Summer is fading into fall, and nights are lengthening as Mother Earth’s axis tilts back toward the winter solstice. For sky gazers this means more time to take in the celestial sights—and although September skies lack the drama of an annular eclipse or a transit of Venus, they have plenty to offer the avid observer.
Viewing some of this month’s “skywatching superlatives” will require “extreme stargazing,” Space.com reported. “Our current morning sky contains the brightest planet and largest star, for example, while the evening sky boasts the most luminous star, the most colorful star and the most distant object that can be seen with the naked eye.”
In terms of what can be seen by the naked eye, Venus once again rules the sky, this time as an early-morning night owl, rising at 3 a.m. to the east and north. It is reaching the peak of the morning appearances of its eight-year apparition cycle, according to Space.com. As such it will be fairly high in the sky.
Just before dawn on September 8, Jupiter will dance with a third-quarter moon, according to the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Manchester, England. In general this month, Jodrell said, Jupiter will be rising at about midnight at the beginning of September and 10 p.m. by the end, best visible before dawn.
“Even a small telescope will show plenty of detail with the bright zones and darker bands crossing the disk and up to four Galilean moons visible,” Jodrell said.
Saturn is on its way out and can best be seen just after sunset in the west. “With a small telescope, Saturn's largest satellite, Titan, can be easily seen,” Jodrell said.
A bit farther out, Jodrell pointed out, Uranus will be at its closest point on September 29, making this month a great viewing time. The dark skies of the new moon from September 12 to 19 will enable the best viewing, but the 21st is the money view—it will be visible next to a star called 44 Piscium, which from our vantage point is a twin, meaning that the planet and the star will look to us like a double star from the 21st to the 25th.
Earth’s own moon, of course, is having its full showing on August 31 as the month's blue moon, fittingly occurring on the same day as the memorial service for astronaut Neil Armstrong. Down on Earth, flags were put at half-mast on that day as well.
One of the most spectacular sights, psychologically speaking, will be that of Andromeda, the Milky Way’s companion galaxy. This will be the most distant object visible without telescope or binoculars, Space.com said, and even with those items the galaxy, which appears as a tiny “cloud,” or smudge in the sky, will only grow into an “elongated fuzzy patch, which gradually brightens in the center to a star-like nucleus,” Space.com said. It contains more than 400 billion stars like our sun.
Although recent photos from the Hubble telescope revealed that it is on a collision course with our own Milky Way, that is a few billion years away.
“Though this patch is faint, realize that, as you see it tonight, its light has been traveling some 2.5 million years to reach you, traveling all that time at 671 million mph,” the space site said. “The light you are seeing is 25,000 centuries old and began its journey around the time of the dawn of human consciousness. When it began its nearly 15-quintillion-mile journey earthward, mastodons and saber-toothed tigers roamed over much of pre-ice-age North America, and prehistoric man struggled for existence in what is now the Olduvai Gorge of East Africa.”